The road to McLaren’s F1 debut

Heritage

“I rather think we expected bells to ring and trumpets to blow,” wrote Bruce McLaren in Autosport magazine of his eponymous team’s Formula 1 debut. “But 22nd May came and went just like any other day. It was Monaco, our first Grand Prix with our first F1 car, and it was a day we had been aiming at for nearly a year. We had been building up our hopes and a car for this race in the expectation that the opening round of the 3.0-litre formula would be different from all the others – but it wasn't. It was just like any other race, in fact more so!”

The passing of time would suggest that Bruce was being unnecessarily modest.

The 1966 Monaco Grand Prix was a truly pivotal race – it not only saw the introduction of the ‘three-litre formula’ – engine regulations that would prevail, incredibly, for almost 20 years, it heralded the arrival in Formula 1 of the McLaren marque, and also marked the first location shoot of John Frankenheimer’s ambitious Hollywood movie, imaginatively titled ‘Grand Prix’.

Just 28 at the time, Bruce was already a veteran in F1 terms. He'd spent a remarkable eight seasons as a driver with the works Cooper team, initially as understudy to his friend and mentor Jack Brabham. The Australian won the 1959 and 1960 World Championships before moving on to construct his own cars, leaving McLaren as Cooper's lead driver.

During his long stint with the Surrey-based outfit, Bruce won three Grands Prix and earned 17 other podium finishes, establishing himself as one of the top contenders of the era. However, Cooper's gradual slide from the sharp end of the grid meant that arguably he had never fulfilled his early promise.

“I think the idea developed during the '65 season,” recalls friend and team mate Chris Amon. “Bruce was having a pretty frustrating time at Cooper, and I think he saw that going nowhere.”

The timing was not by chance. In 1966, F1 would see a “return to power” as the regulations switched from 1.5 to 3.0-litres. The new breed of engines would represent a fresh start for everyone, and there was sure to be a shake-up of the old order. 

Bruce had strong ties with the Ford Motor Company, thanks to a contract to race and test the GT40 sportscar, and, well aware of the resources of the Detroit manufacturer, he came up with a plan. He was able to acquire four 4.2-litre Indy V8s, and commissioned Californian company Traco Engineering to downsize them to the F1 legal limit.

The general idea was to show Ford that it should be in Grand Prix racing, and if possible, generate some official support. Meanwhile, financial backing from F1 newcomers Firestone, and BP helped to give the McLaren project a kickstart.

Bruce had already begun to gather a good crew around him. Administration and team management was taken care of by lawyer Teddy Mayer, brother of Timmy – the Tasman tragedy had only served to strengthen Teddy’s bond with Bruce. There was a strong group of mechanics, including Mayer’s friend Tyler Alexander, and a group of hard working and talented Kiwis. Journalist Eoin Young was Bruce's secretary, general organiser and PR man.

Chris Amon, yet another New Zealander, was a logical choice as second driver, having learned the F1 ropes with the Parnell team.

”Bruce was great to work with,” says Chris. “You never knew what he was going to come up with next day. He had flashes of inspiration, and having decided on something he never allowed anything to get in the way of getting it done. He generated tremendous enthusiasm within the whole operation.

“With some of his ideas, Teddy and Tyler had to moderate his enthusiasm and try and do them within the resources of the company! And on a personal basis Bruce was a wonderful guy – the sort of person who never had a bad word to say about anybody. Bruce was the sort of person who collected a good team around him. It was a very young crew, and there were some very good people around.”

In an era when many racing cars were still designed largely via intuition rather than science Bruce wisely decided to bring in a trained engineer to draw his new F1 car. The man he chose was budding aerospace engineer Robin Herd, who had been working on the Concorde project. He had a desire to work in motor racing, and plenty of enthusiasm to back up his ambition.

”I had a great job but I wanted something more challenging,” Herd recalls. “I got a message to phone Bruce. We met that evening, and that was that. McLaren were doing F1, and I was designing racing cars!

“I was only 24, and to be told we’ve got to have this car on the grid at Monaco next year when I hadn’t actually designed anything other than engineering exercises, showed an extraordinary degree of faith – or stupidity – on his part, and a similar arrogance or stupidity on mine. But I wanted to do it so much I wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way.”

Helped by fellow recruit Gordon Coppuck, Herd pressed on with design of the first McLaren single-seater, which was known as the M2A. In a nod to his aerospace background it featured a highly unusual chassis made out of Mallite, an aluminium/balsa sandwich that was used in aircraft cabins.

With the first Ford not yet ready, the prototype was fitted with a 4.5-litre Oldsmobile engine, and it was used as a Firestone tyre test hack, running for the first time at Zandvoort in November 1965, where they even conducted a very early (and successful) experiment with a novel rear wing. In hindsight a downsized version of the Oldsmobile V8 would have made a much better basis for an F1 engine – indeed it would morph into the Repco used by Brabham in 1966 – but Bruce was by now committed to Ford, in large part because of the commercial possibilities.

Meanwhile bad news was emerging from Traco, and it became apparent that the downsized Ford would not be up to the job. In Indy form it produced 470bhp, but as a 3.0-litre it couldn't get close to the expected 335bhp. It also created a few packaging constraints.

”We were optimistic, but we kept hearing about setback after setback,” says Herd. “Eventually one engine arrived in England. We knew it was going to be fairly heavy, but the weight we were quoted bore no resemblance to what it actually weighed. It was like a 10-tonne truck! Nevertheless, we stuck it in the back of the car and went to Goodwood for half a day’s testing before Monaco.” 

This first test was to prove disappointing: “At least it ran. And it made a lovely noise. That’s probably where most of the power went. Bruce, who’d been there with the Oldsmobile car, came in and said ‘This thing’s got no power, it’s a joke. We actually did consider pulling out of Monaco, but in the end we thought, 'Let's go for it'.” 

The plan had always been to take two cars to the first World Championship race of the season in Monaco, with Amon supporting McLaren. Indeed as late as the week before the race Autosport magazine reported that “Bruce's car has been tested at Goodwood, while Chris's machine will be finished this week.” However, after the disappointing test it was decided to focus on one car, leaving Amon frustrated.

“We worked out that the engine and gearbox together weighed about the same as the whole Brabham car,” recalls mechanic Howden Ganley. “It was a very good chassis, probably the stiffest monocoque of the time, but had nothing to propel it. We were going to run two cars, but it was enough of a scramble getting one together.” 

“It was all very exciting at the beginning,” Amon admits. “But it was equally very frustrating. We all thought the engine had tremendous potential, but of course it was a total disaster.”

Then as now, the biggest challenge was simply time, or rather the lack of it.

“I'll tell you something,” Bruce would write later. “Being an F1 constructor isn't easy (not that I'd kidded myself it was going to be be). I remember saying profoundly in this column a while back that motor racing tends to be a question of how much engineering you can do on how little money. Now I'd like to add a third rider – and in how little time!”

With the sole M2B fully fettled and ready for action after the Goodwood test, the team prepared for the long drive down to Monaco.

McLaren’s Formula 1 adventure was about to begin...